World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                       Vernon Ledgard

Life at an Army Training Camp Part 1

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Vernon Ledgard
Location of story: Durham
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Doreen Partridge of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Vernon Ledgard and has been added to the site with the author’s permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Part 1

Life at an Army Training Camp
Royal Engineers,

When I was eighteen, I received my call up papers. First I had to go to Leeds for a medical examination, which I passed A1 and then I received a train warrant and instructions to report to Brancepeth Camp near Durham on 7th December 1944. When I arrived at Durham station, there was a Durham Light Infantry corporal shouting for any recruits for Brancepeth to go outside and board the waiting army lorries. As we approached the camp which was just huts, I was surprised to see soldiers with rifles and steel helmets running through a wet field and throwing themselves down every few yards. This occurred to me as not very healthy, but I later found that the throwing yourself down in the cold and wet was the best bit because then you got a little rest.

We were allocated to a hut and told to put our belongings on one of the two tier bunks. I was only able to get a lower bunk! We then had to fall in outside and were given a knife, fork and spoon each, marched to a long dining room full of very noisy solders all clad in denims, which were the working uniform of the time. We queued up and received a meal of re-constituted potato, boiled tasteless haricot beans and a piece of tough stringy meat. Even so, the men around were shouting for us not to throw anything away, but to scrape it onto their plates. Outside the hut was a large tank full of boiling water to plunge our eating irons in to wash them. We were then marched back to our hut for a first night on a hard camp bed with a pillow filled with straw and three army blankets.

Reveille was at 6a.m. followed by a difficult shave in a room full of jesting squaddies, some of whom used cutthroat razors. Later, we were taken down to Brancepeth Castle to the stores where we were issued with two Battle Dress Uniforms, an overcoat, respirator, rifle, bayonet, denims, two pairs of boots and all accoutrements required for soldiering. Then to the barbers where our heads were shaved to a stubble.
Everyday following, we were rushed from pillar to post, never having a minute until lights out at 10p.m. Continual rifle drill, physical training, Bren gun (a light machine gun) training and marching at a very fast pace at all times. Saturday mornings we were inoculated against various diseases, each man stood in a queue with a bared arm into which was plunged a large blunt needle. Some men fainted. Our arms were very sore and tender for the weekend but when Monday came along it was more marching, rifle drill etc.

It was bitterly cold and I never seemed to feel very well or to be able to get warm.
One day there was a terrible blizzard with a biting north wind; this happened to be our day for a five-mile run in P.E. kit. We ran from the camp gate for two and a half miles west with snow caked on our right side and when we turned to come back, this melted and we received the snow on our left side. We were absolutely frozen, but it was immediately back into denims and out on the square for drill wet or not.

I had to attend the dentist for treatment, which resulted in a tooth being pulled out. All day long it kept bleeding and when I lay on my bunk at night, it still bled so I had to get up to report to the Medical Orderly room. It was a cold clear night with several inches of snow on the ground and I left a trail of drops of red blood in the white snow. I knocked up the corporal on duty and after inspecting the bloody hole in my gum, he rang for a medical officer who came and plugged the hole with cotton wool and instructed me to stay the night in the medical centre. This seemed heavenly, as it was a lovely soft bed with clean white sheets and white pillows.

One day we were issued with two Mills Fragmentation bombs. They looked like a metal pineapple with a locked metal handle on the side. We had a forced march in full kit with rifles, respirators, steel helmets etc. to the throwing ground. It was a bitterly cold day and because of our march, we were sweating when we arrived, we then had to wait our turn to go into the sandbagged throwing bays. The throwing bays had two N.C.O.’s in them and they took two men at a time to throw the grenades. For some uncanny reason, when my time came - we were all sat shivering - I invited the man next to me to go before me. Of course his hands were frozen with cold and he dropped his grenade in the mud, it exploded, resulting in both soldiers and the N.C.O.’s being taken to hospital with severe shrapnel wounds.

I spent a miserable six weeks at Brancepeth camp having infantry training and it seemed like years. The harsh regime was obviously designed to turn callow youths into soldiers, irrespective of the price, which in some cases caused some youths to attempt suicide.
It ended with my transfer to the Royal Engineers and I duly received a railway warrant to report to Kitchener Barracks in Chatham, Kent for a three months training course. The rail journey took me first to London on a packed train. I was in full kit with my rifle and kit bag containing much of my spare clothes and equipment. Most of the time I was unable to get a seat so I sat in the corridor on my kit bag. The change of stations in London meant that I had to use the underground, once again standing room only and I seemed to be carried along by the crowd, packed like sardines in the carriage.

On arrival I was allocated to Boys’ Block. This was the oldest part of Kitchener Barracks, comprising large rooms with thirty double tier bunks in each. The ablutions did not have any hot water, this meant shaving and washing in cold. It was all very strange and I felt very lonely and homesick. Once you were called into the forces in wartime, you had no rights whatsoever. You were in for the “Duration of the present Emergency” and the possibility of being able to go back home seemed very remote, if ever. You were constantly told that you are in the army now and you have no rights. If you were given any leave it was a privilege and unless you passed your training course you would have to retrain all over again until you passed. The psychological effect of this on a naïve callous youth of eighteen was devastating and depressing. We all received continual severe harsh treatment.

The weather, too, was severe, very cold with some snow on the ground, we were, firstly, to spend our days in an area called the Great Lines, where we were taught how to erect barbed wire and lift or lay mines. Then we had lessons on constructing a bridge across a ravine using heavy posts, somewhat larger than telegraph poles. Most of the men were unused to physical work and found this terribly hard. In my case I was 5’6” weighing only 8st. 4lb. (8 stones, 4 pounds – 1 stone = approx. 6.3 Kg. 1 pound = approx. 0.45 Kg.) and I was not very strong.

Reveille was at 6a.m. with lights out at 10p.m. and you can be sure that we were glad to be in bed at 10p.m. First thing in the morning after washing and dressing, we took our eating irons to join a long queue of sappers outside the cookhouse, the food was appalling, possibly because when women were called up, if they had no skills and were not very intelligent, they were put to work in the cookhouse. They wore a sort of snood on their heads, a pair of clogs and a mainly dirty wrap-around overall. Their interest in the job or the quality of food was, of course, nil. I remember our evening meal was at onetime, fried liver that had been fried to such an extent that it was like leather, this with a dollop of gravy over it. Next morning, we had the same meal heated up for breakfast.
We were allowed out of the barracks in the evening after cleaning our kit and rifles and after blancoeing our webbing and cleaning our brasses. We, then, made our way into the town centre of Chatham which was not far away, our main purpose was to get more food, often egg and chips or sandwiches, kindly sold at the Salvation Army Canteen or the Church Army, manned by volunteer ladies who were most kind to us. We, also, had a NAAFI within the barracks, which supplied these types of meal.

After some weeks we were given training in the erection of Bailey Bridges which were made of heavy steel panels and girders, and finished with a layer of wooden transoms for vehicles to run on. These were quite ingenious as they could be put together quickly and in various ways and at maximum were able to carry heavy tanks. Once we had trained to an adequate standard, we were taken to a place called Wouldham. This was a camp of Nissen huts, which had concrete floors. It was alongside the Medway, a tidal river. There weren’t any bunks and we were allocated three blankets and a straw filled pillow and had to sleep on the concrete floor. The toilet was a wooden beam suspended across a stinking pit in the open air. Our dress was denims, U.S. boots (unserviceable) and no socks. Steel helmets were worn at all times.

On our first morning, we were introduced to the Medway. The beach had been formed by tipping a thickness of large pebbles. At the top were some very heavy pontoons (flat top boats), it took about a dozen men at each side to lift them and slowly take them to the river. The sergeant in charge bellowed that they must be taken into the water until they floated. If the bottom scratched the pebbles, we had to lift them back to the top of the beach and do it all again. Obviously, the leading men had to go into the freezing water up to their knees, that’s the reason for no socks. When the pontoons were floated, we then had to clamber on board, insert a large oar and with our feet braced against a wooden cross piece, sit on the flat deck to row. At the order of “Up Oars”, the oars had to be raised to vertical position, standing between our thighs. Of course the water ran down the oar, which meant that we were sat in a puddle. All this was in freezing weather.

We had training in building various types of pontoon bridges at night in blackout, no lighting whatsoever. The only good thing about this two-week course was that we were allowed double rations and we had some very good men cooks who did an excellent job. The food was superb!

As you can imagine, all this type of training resulted in many casualties, frozen fingers, slipping off cold steel transoms etc. letting heavy weights fall onto legs, feet or hands. The working parties (as they were called) consisted of a hundred and twenty men, and of these we had more than twenty causalities by the end of the three-month course. In my case, I suffered from frost bitten hands; my fingers were cracked, bleeding and severely swollen.
Our next severe test was a live ammunition assault course. We were taken to a large overgrown unused quarry and assembled at the entrance. As we stood waiting, our anxiety increased because of the tremendous row going on within, loud explosions and the constant chatter of Bren guns. I had become friendly with Norman Horton a young man from Brentford, and another young man called Eddie always attached himself to us when things got difficult or frightening. This was certainly one of those times. He told us that he just couldn’t face the run, he was completely terrified. We placated him saying that he could run between us where he would be safe. There were Bren guns at the top and both sides of the quarry firing the ammunition over our heads and with continual explosions alongside our route, which took us under barbed wire along channel in the earth, and over specially prepared obstacles. Smoke was everywhere; I shouted to Norman, “Where is Eddie?” Eddie had disappeared. Fear had lent wings to his feet, for when we reached the end where men were lying in the grass panting for breath, Eddie had got there long before us.

In the evening, after this event, we had to spend our time cleaning the mud and filth from our equipment. Cleaning boots, blancoeing our webbing and gaiters (Blanco was a khaki coloured powder and could be purchased in a can, this was mixed with water and brushed onto the webbing). We had to clean our 303 rifles which we took with us at all times when training, these had to be spotless because our first event of the day was a close inspection of equipment. Anyone not having his kit up to standard was put on a charge and had to report to an officer. The punishment was seven or more days being confined to barracks and having to report to the guardroom where you were allocated two hours of chores, such as washing floors, sweeping up debris etc.

Pay for a new recruit was 21/- (21 shillings - one pound and five pence). If you accepted 14/- (70p) and you were killed whilst in the army, your next of kin received a pension. This seven shillings was allocated to your next of kin each week and could be redeemed from the post office. I made this allocation and received pay of just 14 shillings per week.
I was always a thrifty person and in my wallet I kept a large white five-pound note. This was a secure reserve for any emergency, particularly to be able to pay my fare if I could get leave to go home. It was possible to apply for a weekend pass, which freed you for forty-eight hours, Saturday and Sunday. This was fine for southerners who lived around London etc. but as it was a whole day’s journey to get to Yorkshire, it was out of the question for me. On two occasions, Norman invited me home for the weekend at Brentford. They were two greatly cherished events, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Norman took me into wartime London and showed me the sights. London was packed with service personnel, particularly yanks. By this time there were no bombing raids but an occasional V.2 rocket could be heard landing with a distant boom, not unlike someone beating a metal drum. No-one took any notice, there was no point, if one landed near, it was just bad luck!

At last, after three very lonely months of training with the Royal Engineers, the course came to an end. I was given ten days leave, starting on Thursday 8th April 1945 until Sunday 6p.m. on the 20th. We received a free return travel warrant to our destination. I was ecstatic! The four months away from home seemed like four years. I took the train to London and the tube to Kings Cross station to catch the 9.45 p.m. to Yorkshire. I was sure that I was the happiest man on earth. I managed to get a seat in one of the compartments. Opposite me was a pale thin soldier wearing what was obviously, a brand new uniform. He had no insignia on this uniform, which was unusual, all uniforms had a regimental insignia on the shoulders, mine clearly showed “Royal Engineers”. I was intrigued and offered him a cigarette, which he refused. In the ensuing conversation, I gleaned that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for some considerable time. He had been in Stalag in the west of Germany and as Russian forces were advancing into Germany, the prisoners were taken out of their camp and marched towards the east. There were no food supplies and he and the other prisoners had to live off anything that they could find. They were marched many, many miles; anyone who fell out would be shot. He survived and was eventually freed by American forces. All the prisoners were little more than walking skeletons and very weak, they were given food but advised not to eat too much as it would be dangerous to put too much into their shrunken stomachs. He informed me, that some men were unable to resist the food and had eaten too much and died.

We reached Halifax station at 5 a.m. This man’s wife had received notification that her husband was on his way home and having no idea when he would arrive, she had camped out on the station to meet every train night or day. What a reunion!

From Halifax I shared the cost of a taxi with another soldier who lived within a mile of my home. As it was still dark, I decided to walk the last mile. I was walking on air those last yards. The dawn chorus started and there I was, walking along the old familiar road to my home. I knocked on the door, realising that my parents would still be in bed. Then distant voices; the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. It was my mother in her dressing gown. She opened the door and her first words to me were, “What are you wanting at this time in the morning?” She did not recognise me, I had gone away a pale callow youth and during my time away I had put a stone on in weight and of course I was in army uniform.




A Young Boy's Early War Life

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Vernon Ledgard
Location of story: Elland Yorkshire
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Doreen Partridge of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Vernon Ledgard.

PW 173 Vernon Ledgard
Part 1
A young boy’s early war life
Yorkshire , Elland
I was 13 years of age when the war was declared on September 3rd 1939, it was very exciting! Initially the only change was the ”Black Out”. All curtains had to be tightly drawn so that no light would show and street lighting was mainly non-existent. All vehicles had to have heavily masked headlights. Everyone was issued with a gas mask, which had to be carried in a cardboard box with a string shoulder strap.

My parents and I were at this time, living at the top of Exley Lane in Elland in a semi-detached house, which we had recently purchased new for £500. Elland lies between Halifax and Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

The government offered householders a chance to have a steel corrugated Anderson Air Raid Shelters. These were to be erected in the garden by digging out a four-feet deep pit of the necessary size. The shelter was placed in the hole and the soil was placed on the top to further insulate against shrapnel. My father refused the offer as he felt we would be more comfortable and just as safe under our solid oak dining table.

The first ten months of the war were uneventful and became known as the “Phoney War”. A very popular song of the time was, “We’re going to hang out the washing on the Seigfried Line”, this referred to the German first line of defence north of France and directly opposite the French Marginot Line. These were said to be impregnable with its underground chambers and heavy fortifications.

Everyone was keen to listen to the news on the wireless. Reports were mainly upon our air attacks in Heligoland and Kiel Canal area of North West Germany.

In the summer of 1940, there was a radical change. Germany attacked Holland, Belgium and North West France. This resulted in our evacuation from Dunkirk; thousands of troops returned with insufficient accommodation for them. The government requested any householders with a spare bedroom to accommodate some troop temporarily. Two British soldiers were taken by a couple living nearby us and they stayed there for three weeks.
Talk now centred on a possible invasion across the English Channel. Barges from the low countries were being assembled in French ports to transport the German troops. The greatest fear, however, was from the German paratroops, this instigated the forming of the civilian unit called the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers), jokingly referred to as the “LOOK, DUCK and VANISH”. Men over the age of eighteen were encouraged to join and my father volunteered, I went with him to the local Territorial Army Depot where, after signing on, he was given a L.D.V. armband and asked to report one evening per week for training. Anyone owning a shotgun, sword or any lethal weapon was encouraged to bring them along when they were training. We were very short of small arms as most of these weapons had been lost at Dunkirk.

I left school at fifteen and became an apprentice in the drawing office of a civil engineering firm in Lockwood, Huddersfield, at the princely sum of ten shillings per week (50p in today’s money). On each working day, which in those days included Saturday mornings, I had to walk into Elland to catch a trolley bus to Huddersfield, then I walked to Lockwood and of course the reverse at the end of the day. I was also required to attend an architectural course three nights a week at Halifax Technical College. To do this, I had to walk to the bottom of Salterhebble Hill near Siddal, catch a bus to Halifax, followed by another long walk to the college, and of course the reverse to return home. I assess that I was walking at least twenty miles per week for work and evening classes.

All buses and public transport had their windows blacked out by being painted on the interior. Small holes had been scratched on the window so that people could see which bus stop we had arrived at; it was not unusual for people to alight at the wrong stop.
When I reached the age of sixteen, I was required to spend one night a week in the firm’s office as a firewatcher. We had a room with a wireless, three bunks, several buckets of sand and three stirrup pumps. The stirrup pumps were designed to fit in a bucket full of water and by pumping, would squirt water through a rubber tube. All this was to be used to put out German incendiary bombs, which could be dropped on the premises. We were paid a half a crown (2/6 now 12½p) for this duty. This may seem a trivial amount today, but the average wage at this time was around £4 a week or less.

I had been saving up for sometime to buy a second-hand 250cc. Velocette motorcycle. Petrol was severely rationed but a small amount of petrol coupons were available for anyone owning a vehicle. This allowed me to go by motorcycle one day a week to my work place in Lockwood. I did not have to pass a test, as manpower was not available for driving test instructors.

A law was then passed that all men over the age of 16 had to join one of the National Defence Forces, such as Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard etc., I volunteered to be a dispatch rider in the National Fire Service. This allowed me extra rations of petrol for my duties. I was given a heavy navy blue uniform and a peaked hat with a chinstrap. No one wore protective clothing in those days, only a pair of goggles. If it was wet weather, we covered ourselves with an old raincoat.

I was required to report for duty one night per week from dusk to dawn to be available to take messages in case of an Air Raid. Our accommodation was in the basement of a house in Northgate, Huddersfield. In this room were some wooden bunks and in one corner a pile of old blankets for our use. These blankets were riddled with fleas, which are very difficult to rid oneself of.

I was at this time, learning to play the trombone and occasionally, got a Saturday night gig which helped my finances. I was particularly friendly with a young man called Roy, also a musician; he played the string bass so we had much in common. Roy had a powerful Norton motorcycle which was his pride and joy, however, in those days, motorcycles had a tubular frame and Roy found that his had cracked, as no spares were available, Roy had the frame braised to repair it. One day, whilst travelling at speed, the frame severed and Roy’s leg was smashed on a telegraph pole and had to be amputated. A terrible tragedy for a young man of only eighteen years.

My teenage life was a stream of unending activity; besides night school, homework and all my other activities, I was needing to find thirty minutes a day to practice my instrument.
Many nights the German bombers would drone their way overhead making their way to Manchester and Liverpool, but luckily few bombs were dropped locally. One night, there was a great deal of aerial activity; I was standing in our garden and had a clear view over Halifax which was some miles away, and I saw the eruption of bombs, later finding that some people had been killed and there had been damage to several houses. I also saw several bombs exploding in fields at Southowram about a half a mile away, possibly the bombers were just getting rid of them.